Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The World As Creation

The God of nature, and the origin of all beauty, is my God
Elizabeth Rowe, Devout Exercises of the Heart

Broadly speaking, the secular scientist understands the material world as nature, as a system of cause-and-effect interlocking laws. A Christian, whether scientist or not, sees this world as creation.

What is the difference? Not that believers grasp beauty and the others don’t. It’s just that there is no source for that beauty. It just is. The existence of the world is a final brute fact. Put another way—and more philosophically—nature is eternal and bears no reason for its existence. The Christian sees nature as contingent and based on God’s necessary existence, the God who created for the purpose of joy and beauty.

The elders in John’s Revelation (4:11) sing this:
You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.
Since God is Beauty itself, when God decides to create, the world will be filled with beauty. Being contingent on God, it is by nature (as it were) beautiful.

Last week, I taught a course on spiritual life and the particular topic of visio divina (divine viewing, related to lectio divina, or “divine reading,” which I describe in an earlier post). Since I don’t know much about the topic (I was substituting for my wife Laura), I will tell you what I know: visio divina involves the use of our eyes as a means of perceiving God.

Usually this spiritual practice involves art, but what if we took this stunning version of spirituality—the one that the Puritan poet Elizabeth Rowe points to—and used the natural world as visio divina? I think we would begin to fulfill at least two things: 1) the reason we were created, and 2) a perception of the world as it truly is. We would see the world as creation in a way that satisfies our souls.


M Fitzpatrick said...

A few thoughts on your excellent post.

1) In your exposition of the difference between secular science and the Christian perspective, you remark that the former has no source for the beauty of the world. "It just is." But couldn't they say that the world indeed "just is," and that the beauty comes from our relationship to it? In other words, if we need a person to put it there, namely God on the Christian view, why can't the secular scientist affirm the conditional and say that it is we who put it there? Sure, it wouldn't be universal, but invoking God doesn't make it universal either, it just means God finds X beautiful (because God made X beautiful to Him), not that I have to find it beautiful.

2) God is Beauty Itself? I cringe with these identity statements. It seems to work in this form. First, we reify beauty as no longer an evaluation of something, but a thing itself. Then we abstract it into Beauty, or the general essence of all that is beautiful. Finally, we identify this with God. Even if we accept this process, what kind of identity relation is it? Is the predicate a noun or an adjective? Is the converse true, that Beauty is God, as Aristotelian logic would require? And if God is Beauty, then when I say a flower is beautiful, am I saying a flower is God?

3) Finally, I suggest that a phrase which would better capture your meaning in the final paragraph that visio divina captures not "a perception of the world as it truly is," but rather "a perception of the world for what it really means." The former suggests some kind of Platonism, where the appearance of the world is not real, and we have to be "inspired" with some kind of divine vision to see the "true forms" of reality. The latter statement, in contrast, remains consistent with your original observation that secular science is describing the world as it is. We can still say that, and simply posit that the spiritual practice is taking a person beyond what a thing is to what it means. It's getting us to the real meaning of something. So science can tell us what is, and we can accept what science says as real. But we do not have to accept it as exhaustive. We can follow visio divina in seeking out the meaning of what is, and as you say, subsequently the meaning of our lives, the reason we were created.

P.S. Grammatical error in the third paragraph up, "Since God is. . . ."

GCootsona said...

First of all, it's worth noting that your comments are longer than my post!

Probably a way of summarizing this post is to refer to a quote from Chesterton (at least how I remember it): "The problem with atheism is to be grateful and to have no one to thank."

As to #1 above, I think the "it" may have an ambiguous referent. It is the WORLD, not beauty, that just is. Does that help with your concern?

As to #2, I would be careful of making "God is Beauty itself" an equation. As you well know, not every use of the verb to be is an equation. "Greg is a man" is one such example. The subject is the larger category of the two in this case.

As to #3, you and I both agree with a relational ontology, where what is does not inhere entirely in the object, but to some degree, in the subject-object relation. I think perception is always partial, and full perception of the natural world requires that we understand a Creator. In this sense, I think Christian faith fulfills, or fills out, a secular view of the world. (It gives us someone to thank, for example.) I do shutter at the idea, however, that it is only in the relation between subject and object where we find beauty. I see this as where you're going with the meaning versus raw reality direction. Or have I misunderstood?

Thanks for the grammatical note: I corrected that and another I found.

Anonymous said...

Does Beauty exist as a noun apart from the beholder? I think beauty is a relational statement. By definition (etymologically both English & Greek), Beauty is a seduction towards a potential goodness, or perceived goodness. It is evocative. It suggests some correspondence between the object and perceiver.

Perhaps I'm missing something, but to say "God is beauty" does set up a false equation, I believe. What might be said is that all beauty radiates from God for God IS good. He is the ultimate goodness suggested in all beauty. To acknowledge beauty is to acknowledge goodness.
-Bill Jackson, Oroville CA

M Fitzpatrick said...

1) I understand that it is the world that is. My observation is rather that, pretending an atheist in reply to Chesterton I suppose, it seems plausible that the world is, and beauty is something which requires a relationship. If so, then that relationship could be the relationship between us and the world, and a consistent atheist could simply be grateful for having a beautiful relationship with the world (where the world is made beautiful by the relationship with it) and not require positing a God to explain the beautiful. My question is why you see this as an impossibility, rather than implausible.

2) I asked whether "God is Beauty" is a predicate noun or adjective. In the case of "Greg is a man," this is a predicate adjective clause. You (rightly!) reject the predicate noun clause reading because of the danger of equating God with Beauty. But then notice that the phrase becomes unintelligble as a predicate adjective clause. In "Greg is a man," the predicate is the larger category, which subsumes the subject. If I say, "flowers are beautiful," again the predicate category subsumes the subject, and is the larger category. If "God is Beauty" is a predicate adjective clause, then how can we coherently read this? You write that the subject is the larger category. Notice that this falls completely outside the capacities of the English language. Do you mean the following, that "Beauty is Divine?" English only has the capacity to either subsume a subject under a class, or equate a subject with its predicate. To subsume a predicate under a subject doesn't make sense, for the following reasons. If "flowers are beautiful" means that flowers fall under the class of 'The Beautiful,' and "God is Beauty" means 'The Beautiful' falls under the class (???) of God (or the Divine?), then flower fall under the class of God (or the Divine). There is some odd logic going on here that strikes me as not nearly as precise as I know you can be.

3) For my view, beauty is a property of the relationship between a subject and an object, not a property sitting relationship-independent out in the world nor being totally subjective in the person. The clear evidence of this is that I find something ugly and you find it beautiful. The difference is not necessarily us, but rather the nature of our relationship with the thing. In fact, I would say relationship partially determines the thing to what it means (it's beautiful), and us to who we are (we are moved by the beauty). Given the contingency of beauty, how then can beauty be something we find "out there", rather than something which is created in our relationship with the object, which God could have easily anticpated in his creation of the object, and us?

A closing quote from another inspirer of Lewis: "'Look upon the rainbow,' wrote the author of Ecclesiasticus: 'Look upon the rainbow, and praise him that made it: very beautiful it is in the brightness thereof. It compasseth the heavens about with a glorious circle, and the hands of the most High have bended it.' Do I echo these words less warmly, when I recollect that YHWH is creating the rainbow through my eyes? When I know that to think otherwise is an illusion or a pretence? . . . I did not create my eyes. And if an understanding of the manner of my participation in the appearance of a rainbow does not dimminish my awe before its Creator, why should that be the case with the other more palpable phenomena?" (Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances)